Six months ago, Sri Lanka stunned the world, and itself, by unseating the country’s neo-monarchical president without firing a single shot, by voting out Mahinda Rajapaksa in the democratic presidential elections. Barely seven months later, however, as the country heads to the parliamentary polls set for 17 August, the contest appears to be revisiting the same playing field with the same players, which many had hoped had been put behind them.
On 8 January 2015, Sri Lankans turned out in unprecedented numbers to vote in a premature presidential election called by Mahinda Rajapaksa, who, together with his brothers had ruled the country with an iron fist for over nine years. As the initial results began to trickle in, indicating a clear victory for the joint opposition and its candidate Maithripala Sirisena, wild rumours about an impending Rajapaksa coup began to circulate. The possibility that the Rajapaksas would depart peacefully seemed unthinkable, to foes and friends alike.
But the unthinkable happened. Long before all the results were in, Mahinda Rajapaksa conceded defeat and left for his private residence in the southernmost district of Hambantota. Within hours, victorious candidate Maithripala Sirisena was sworn in as Sri Lanka’s new president on 9 January, supported by a coalition that included the United National Party (UNP), even as support within his own party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), remained divided with a large section still in support of Rajapaksa.
The transfer of power was complete when, a few days later, Rajapaksa resigned as the president of the former ruling coalition United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and its main constituent party, the SLFP. Sirisena, who before his sudden defection to the opposition in November 2014 had been the general secretary of the SLFP and a minister in Rajapaksa’s cabinet, was unanimously chosen as leader of both organisations.
In a world filled with democratic experiments gone awry, Sri Lanka’s was a notable exception. The new president and his minority government unshackled the media, restored a degree of independence to a deeply compromised judiciary, pushed through a constitutional amendment which reduced presidential powers, empowered the Parliament, and partially depoliticised the administration via independent commissions. Some political prisoners were released. The practice of singing the national anthem in Tamil was restored. Anti-Muslim hysteria was addressed as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), a Sinhala Buddhist group that carried out violent attacks on Muslims and Christians, no longer had state patronage. A populist budget resulted in a rise in wages for government employees. Foreign policy was recalibrated and relations with India and the West strengthened. Sirisena’s unassuming demeanour and consensual methods were a stark and welcome contrast to Rajapaksa’s autocratic mien and monarchic style. Though far from perfect or trouble-free, the shift from autocracy to democracy, from impunity to the rule of law, seemed irreversible.
That the Rajapaksas and their political cohorts were planning a comeback was no secret. There were fears that some calamitous event, perhaps a successful attempt on Sirisena’s life, might enable the Rajapaksas to regain power. But no one thought that Sirisena would buckle under pressure and let his party seniors support Rajapaksa’s resurgence. Until it became a reality. On 9 July, Mahinda Rajapaksa signed his nomination papers for a UFPA candidature for the 17 August parliamentary elections after being nominated by the SLFP, of which Sirisena continues to be the leader, albeit nominally. The process that led to the rehabilitation of Rajapaksa – potentially positioning him as a prime-ministerial candidate after losing power a short seven months ago – has its origins in the events that led to his ouster from the ruling seat.
The January agreement
The unexpectedly smooth transfer of power on 9 January was the result of a deal between the winning and losing sides. UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe played a central role in this. He is said to have kept lines of communications open with the Rajapaksa camp even during the bitter election campaign, and it was to him that Rajapaksa turned to after his purported attempt to extra-constitutionally continue in power was opposed by the armed forces and the police. Wickremesinghe visited Rajapaksa in the early hours of 9 January and reportedly brokered the agreement which ensured a smooth transfer of power.
The contents of that agreement were never publicised, but it was widely rumoured that Rajapaksa wanted protection for himself and his brother Gotabhaya, no prosecution of his family on corruption and other charges, and nominations for himself and his eldest son Namal at the next parliamentary election. This peaceful exit, it seemed, was a tactical move rather than a prelude to political retirement.
During his nine-year rule, Rajapaksa laid the groundwork for one of Southasia’s most recent political dynasties. In an interview after the elections, Namal Rajapaksa defended his father’s practice of familial politics: “The war was ended because of this bond within the family. Leaders needs someone they can trust.” When the interviewer asked if this was a feudal argument in a modern democracy, the younger Rajapaksa replied, perhaps a bit irrelevantly, “We always trusted each other.” The dynastic project was dead but its dreams lingered and fuelled the comeback project.
There was another critical factor which made Rajapaksa plot his political comeback. In his eyes, he was defeated not by ‘true’ Sri Lankans (read Sinhala-Buddhists) but by an alien combo of Tamil, Muslim and Christian voters, India, and the West. As the ‘Bring back Mahinda’ campaign – launched in February 2015 by key Rajapaksa allies in the SLFP/UPFA coalition – gathered steam, anti-minority fear-mongering about threats to national security by resurgent minorities and ‘evil’ foreigners became the main rallying point. The faithful attending these political spectacles railed against the ‘2015 Conspiracy’ and ‘national enemies’. “We want a king, not a puppet,” became a popular slogan. Speaker after speaker claimed that a sinister collation of minorities, and regional and global imperialists, had captured power through the ballot box, undermining the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country. No opportunity was missed to make religious and racial insinuations. After a school girl was gang raped and brutally murdered in Jaffna, and violent protests had broken out against police failure to apprehend the suspects assumed to be Tamils, Rajapaksa and his allies tried to depict it as a sign of post-election resurgence of Tamil Tigers.
The minority baiting failed to invoke a response in the Sinhala-Buddhist South. But this did not matter because Rajapaksa’s real strength lay in his continued dominance over the SLFP and the UPFA. For almost a decade, he and his brothers had worked with systematic thoroughness to turn the SLFP into a Rajapaksa party. Consequently, Rajapaksa still commands the support of a large number of party functionaries, including around 80 members of Parliament and the general secretaries of the UPFA and the SLFP.
Although Sirisena and the opposition coalition won a clear democratic mandate in the presidential elections, they were forced to work with a Parliament which had been elected in 2010 and was dominated by Rajapaksa loyalists. Sirisena did manage to win the allegiance of some SLFP parliamentarians by offering them ministerial posts. But the SLFP-led opposition continued to be numerically larger than the UNP-led government, making it difficult to pass even the most urgent bills.
Even as Sirisena gained popular appraisal both nationally and internationally during his months as president, within the SLFP/UPFA, he continued to have a weak hand. His efforts at imposing party discipline failed. Most of the party’s top-rung continued to dance to the Rajapaksa tune. The situation was not tenable. In any case, Sirisena had promised to dissolve the Parliament after 100 days of his appointment. The UNP, sensing that the political momentum was in its favour, kept on pushing the president to honour this promise, even though Sirisena looked reluctant. This reluctance might have stemmed from his lack of control over the SLFP/UPFA. But both the UNP and the Rajapaksa faction continued clamouring for an early election. Sirisena finally dissolved the Parliament on 26 June.
For months, Mahinda Rajapaksa, along with his allies, had been demanding UPFA nominations for themselves in the parliamentary elections. They were also insisting that the former president be named UPFA’s candidate for prime minister, or else be faced with the prospect of a break in the UPFA coalition, in which they would contest the elections separately under Rajapaksa’s leadership. At an emotionally charged meeting with some of his key allies, Sirisena is reported to have said he had no control over Rajapaksa’s nomination process. After much tension, Rajapaksa eventually succeeded in becoming a candidate for UPFA.
What was utterly astounding was not Rajapaksa’s determination to regain power, but the rapidity and the scale of Sirisena’s capitulation. Rajapaksa’s conduct throughout has been characteristic and predictable, but Sirisena’s conduct in the last stages of the nomination process was incomprehensible. Every day he addressed public meetings, talking on a variety of issues in his customary sober manner, while maintaining a total silence about the nominations fiasco. At a recent official function, he approvingly quoted a stone inscription by an ancient Lankan king, Nissanka Malla, warning that those who steal state assets may be reborn as dogs and crows. “I suggest that this edict be inscribed in a plaque and placed in all offices from that of the president and ministers to the government officials,” Sirisena proclaimed even as the secretaries of the UPFA and the SLFP were giving nominations to Rajapaksa supporters whose names had become bywords for corruption.
After a period of silence, a month before the scheduled elections, media personnel were suddenly summoned to the Presidential Secretariat, where Sirisena made an hour long speech which was nothing less than shocking. He confirmed that he never wanted to give nominations to the Rajapaksas but was forced to do so by the SLFP/UPFA. He wanted to avoid a Rajapaksa-led breakup in the SLFP, he said, because the resultant weakening of one of the country’s two main parties would weaken democracy. He provided examples from history to make his point. He also claimed he dissolved the Parliament to thwart attempts by the Rajapaksa group to capture the government. He pledged to implement the mandate of the presidential elections and predicted that Rajapaksa would be defeated this time too, emphasising that even if the UPFA wins, he would not make Rajapaksa the prime minister.
Yet Sirisena’s supporters are still left with plenty of questions and no answers. Has Sirisena betrayed the 6.2 million people who voted for him? Is he trying to make something of a hopeless situation? Does he have some other plans? Has he been coerced? Rumours and theories abound. The puzzle intensified with the sudden departure of former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (who handpicked him as the presidential candidate and convinced the UNP to back him). Several key Sirisena supporters have crossed over to contest the election with the UNP. The entry of Rajapaksa in the race may, inadvertently strengthen the position of the UNP.
UNP’s election to lose
Rajapaksa’s landslide victory in the 2010 election was the result of a radical shift in national politics after the state’s victory in the Eelum War. But by 2015, the president’s sheen had been eroded by a number of factors, especially his inability to deliver the peace dividend. Rajapaksa was defeated on 8 January not just because he lost the minority votes, but also because a large chunk of Sinhala voters who supported him in 2010, voted for Sirisena in 2015. This electoral shift happened nationally, including in every single Sinhala-majority district. Without such a change in voting patterns, Sirisena could not have won, even with minority support.
Rajapaksa himself is contesting not from his traditional base of Hambantota, but from the country’s third-most populous district, Kurunegala. And although the district has a significant minority presence (including around 7 percent Muslims), the Rajapaksa-led UPFA district candidate list does not contain a single Muslim candidate. This is perhaps no accident. The only way in which the Rajapaksas can regain some of these lost votes is by inciting a wave of anti-minority, anti-Indian, anti-Western sentiments.
Sri Lanka once again faces a make-or-break election. If the UPFA wins, the Rajapaksas will render Sirisena irrelevant, roll back the democratic gains made in the last few months (including the 19th Amendment, which reduced some presidential powers, restored independent commissions and reintroduced presidential term limits), and resume their dynastic project. The news that Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother, Basil Rajapaksa, is to handle his brother’s election campaign heightens the sense of déjà vu. But if the UPFA loses, it will deal a devastating , and hopefully terminal, blow to the carefully crafted myth of Rajapaksa invincibility and indispensability.
The UNP was the main player in Sirisena’s rainbow coalition, and the SLFP’s increasing support for Mahinda Rajapaksa’s leadership, and away from Sirisena, has enabled the UNP to become the main legatee of the 8 January victory. The UNP leaders are said to be working hard to attract as many of Sirisena’s SLFP supporters as possible in their fold.
The political momentum therefore is not with the UPFA but with the UNP. This is the UNP’s election to win or lose. During its tenure in government, the UNP had opened itself to charges of corruption and inefficiency, leading to serious doubts about the party’s rhetoric of anti-corruption, rule of law and ‘good governance’ rhetoric.
Ironically, without the threat of a Rajapaksa comeback, many undecided voters and first-time voters who played a key role in Sirisena’s victory may have stayed away at the parliamentary election. Sans Rajapaksas, there appeared little to be excited about. But Rajapaksa’s re-entry, and the looming danger of every single gain since his defeat being destroyed, are likely to drive young voters and swing voters to the polling booth. In case of such a surge, the UNP will be its main beneficiary.
The battle lines are drawn; the stakes are clear. With President Sirisena taking a strong public stand against Rajapaksa, the scene looks like the second act of January’s electoral contest. Is Sri Lanka going to continue her forward journey towards greater democracy? Or will it return to the Rajapaksa era of dynastic authoritarianism.
~ Tisaranee Gunasekara is a Sri Lankan commentator based in Colombo.